MASERU – About 15 years ago, vending items on the streets of Maseru was Motlohi Kabi’s only source of income, and provided the only feasible prospects to finance his studies.
Not an ideal job for him, Kabi only wanted to use vending as a stop-gap measure which he hoped to discard once he gets a qualification and secures a decent job.
Like youth his age, 35-year-old Kabi preferred a white-collar job where he will work from 8 to 5 and get a salary that will sustain his family throughout the month but fate had something different in store for him.
Year after year, he worked on the streets of Maseru as a street vendor with hope that one day such hustling would be a thing of the past.
Finally, 15 years down the line, he fulfilled his dream by securing a bachelor of arts degree in business and entrepreneurship from the National University of Lesotho.
But his dream to finally get employed and leave the streets of Maseru will never happen, not because he is afraid to leave his comfort zone but because his hustle proved fruitful to him and letting go of it was not an option any more.
He sees a future in his business that is run in a plastic shack.
Through this he sees a future that can secure his life and create jobs for other Basotho in the not-so-distant future.
Kabi notes that during his hustle in the streets, his love and passion for business grew and he was motivated to press on and grow into an entrepreneur who would empower and mentor young aspiring entrepreneurs.
Even though he was determined to build a name for himself in the business industry, business challenges at some point pushed him to seek employment after obtaining his first qualification, a diploma in business studies, but the search proved futile.
After failing to get any job, he decided to pursue his studies further, while also improving the business he already has for survival.
Desperation, not passion had driven him to the street to sell clothes and shoes to help him to survive and finance his studies. Paradoxically, he grew to love what he is doing and would not trade it for any job offer unless such an offer comes with perks that are out of this world and too good to let pass.
“Selling clothes and shoes on the streets is not just work to me anymore, but a means for survival for my family. It is a step towards becoming the businessman I wish to be and a platform to encourage other graduates and people in general to start their own small businesses and stop blaming the government for unemployment.
“Vending on the streets while holding a bachelor of arts in business and entrepreneurship should be a lesson to everyone that unemployment is real and it is up to an individual to stop being choosey about jobs and do all in their power to generate an income,” he said.
Kabi started his clothes and shoes’ shop on the streets of Maseru in 2004, operating from a plastic shack with only a COSC certificate to his name and the business kept growing with experience.
He says in real terms he did not just gain certified qualifications from NUL but he also attained real life educational experience from the streets.
All that is needed for one to start a business is a little money, guidance, determination and passion, Kabi says.
He notes that on a good day, he takes home up to M2 000, while on a normal to a dry day he makes M300 or nothing at all.
“There are dry days and those good ones where business is booming but what is important is passion and determination to make it on the streets.
“To encourage each other and even ensure that they stay in business, we have street vendors’ societies where we collect a certain amount of money on monthly and weekly basis and give it to a specific person so that they can sustain their business,” he states.
Considering the success of his business which has grown to being fully able to sustain him and his family, looking for a job would be taking a step back from a promising future which is why looking for a job has become a very distant thought to him.
Even though being a street vendor does not need qualifications, he believes it is a bonus to get one and notes that since he acquired qualifications he has been able to advertise his business on social media. He says the certificates have enhanced his hands-on skills when it comes to managing his business and saving money.
“I don’t think I will ever seek employment ever, instead will work on expanding my business and create jobs for others,” he chuckles.
Kabi states that as street vendors, they face a lot of challenges that rage from competition with Chinese shops that sell the same products as them at a ridiculously lower prices, to lack of secured shelter for their goods to protect them from dust, rain and direct sunlight which ages their products faster.
Secured facilities could save them time and energy to pack and unpack all the time after hours, notes Kabi who works from a plastic shack and pays Maseru City Council (MCC) M18 per year.
Earlier this year, the ministry of small business development donated some cubicles to street vendors. Unfortunately, Kabi was not among the recipients but along with other vendors, he hopes they too will be assisted with such shelters.
Providing financial assistance to those that have just started their business would be a very good investment for them and the country as a whole, Kabi suggests.
However, being a street vendor is not for everyone.
Unlike Kabi whose desperation pushed him onto the streets as a step toward his dream of being one of the biggest entrepreneurs in the country, Ntsela Monoto, a 36-year-old mother of two from Thaba Tseka, notes that her struggle on the streets of Maseru as a street vendor is unbearable.
She used to work as a domestic worker but due to lack of qualifications, the little money she was paid and the unbearable work load, in 2011 she decided to sell food at Maseru Taxi Rank hoping to make more money to support her family.
Monoto notes that the business did not go as well as she expected and most of the time she would return home with food that was meant to be sold which affected her business so much that she ran losses and decided to sell non-perishable goods, instead.
Coming all the way from Thaba Tseka, Monoto notes that after she decided to stop selling food and started bottled beer and soft drinks, her business improved and she was able to look after her family for years but since last year, business has dropped again and she is at the edge of giving up and going back to work as a domestic worker.
“Even though I sell non-perishable goods, I still run a loss most of the time because, due to slow business I am forced to fork money out of my pocket for transport to work and I often get into debt trying to sustain the business. In extreme cases, I sometimes even fail to go to work due to lack of transport money,” she said.
She has decided to let go of her business and look for employment as a domestic worker again.
Monoto is among the street vendors that were given cubicles by MCC for which each pays M78 per annum.
An appreciative Monoto concedes the cubicles have brought radical change in their working facilities as they no longer worry about rain, the sun and dust which had been a great inconvenience.
But she says although they have a secure place from which they sell their products, they are in acute need of financial assistance to sustain their businesses.
Small business development minister, Chalane Phori, early this year took a swipe at local Chinese business owners who compete with Basotho street vendors instead of sticking to their mandate which is to wholesale in bulk and supply the same small businesses.
In supporting the street vendors, he handed over of 261 cubicles to different groups of street vendors in Maseru.
“That is not how we should do business in this country because our goal is to see these small businesses develop to create employment in future and it would be difficult to achieve such if they have to compete with big Chinese retailers.
“These people did not come all the way from China to sell loose cigarettes here because if that was the case they could as well do it in their own country. They are here because they have the muscle to compete at the highest level and not to smother vulnerable, young and upcoming entrepreneurs,” Phori said.
He went on to emphasise that the country needs investors who have the capacity to produce what Lesotho cannot produce and not people who come and take opportunities that should be accessed by Basotho.
“In fact, government should revisit some of the laws if we are to achieve some of our goals on how to grow the business sector. These investors should be forced to partner with local entrepreneurs when they get here so that we grow together,” he added.
Chairman of Maseru street vendors’ association, Molefi Paneng, corroborated the statements by Phori citing that government should go out and train small business owners who have enough capacity to expand their businesses to occupy some of the spaces occupied by Chinese retailers.
“They are competing with us which is wrong because the terms of the licenses are clear regarding their scope of business. At the moment it is a mess because they occupy small spaces and start selling fruits and vegetables, while others are operating in the clothing industry. The ministry of trade and industry should also be firm regarding the issuance of licenses and ensure that these people stick to the rules,” Paneng said.
Meanwhile, the ministry has already spent around M4.5 million on street vendors’ cubicles around the country in a move that seeks to assist small business holders to realise their full potential.
The small business ministry was allocated M10 million to pursue the initiative that is expected to expand to other districts.
Besides Maseru, the districts of Leribe and Mohale’s Hoek have already benefited with 256 and 323 cubicles respectively. In Leribe close to M1.4 million was spend to build the cubicles, while M1.6 million was spend in Mohale’s Hoek.
A total 840 cubicles have so far been delivered and set up.